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Repertoire Building Is The Only Adventure

from Sunday, April6th of the year2008.

npac.pngThis post was written at the kind request of the good people at the National Performing Arts Convention 2008. It will be posted in conjunction with ArtsJournal here, where presumably you should leave all of your comments. I am turning off my comments section here to encourage all of you to leave comments there to keep the discussion going.

Repertoire Building Is The Only Adventure
(Otherwise it’s just Girls Gone Wild)

Talking about programming new music is one of these paradoxical things; I feel like I, as a composer, shouldn’t have to say anything about it because it goes without saying that I am in favor. Similarly, for presenting organizations ““ both ensembles and venues ““ if you need to be told about it, it may already be too late. 88376291-17a4-f7ce-bf87c0084e695314.jpgWith the exception of Jordi Savall, Masaaki Suzuki, and, feature-jordi-savall-a.jpglike, four other people, it is the responsibility of every musician and group of musicians to program ““ and champion (an important emphasis) new music. (In fact, Jordi, call me, I have an idea: it’s like Sephardic Judaism meets gamelan, you know you love it.)

A few weeks ago, I went to hear a dress rehearsal of Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra playing Mason Bates‘s (who is roughly my age, slightly older, though, slightly older) Liquid Interface, which is an ambitious commission for Slatkin; it features a very difficult interaction between the orchestra’s tricky passages and the live electronics (which Bates controls). So: that’s what I would consider, in a rough sense, to be somebody championing new music and really owning the fact of a new piece: put it on a truck and bring it to Carnegie Hall, don’t hide it in that weird room between La Mer and the Emperor concerto.

Now, I would take a bullet for Mason, and I adore his music and particularly Liquid Interface, but I want to ask the slightly provocative question which is: would the National Symphony accept something funngamessm.jpegfrom him that they had to play every year, or every two years? I can’t imagine that they are going to be happy to schlep out the hi-fi and cart Mason in from Berkeley if, for instance, Leonard Slatkin isn’t there to make it happen. So, is that commission an adventure for the orchestra, or just for the conductor and the composer? As far as I’m concerned, an adventure is a journey that is in some way transformative for the acting party or parties; a piece of music that enters into the repertoire, into the cycle, is more likely to be transformative than one that happens for just one night.

I am always suspicious when an orchestra commissions one new piece a season and it’s some facacta Michael Torke + Tap Dancing situation like how Detroit did that one time. Michael Torke: knows how to write a piece for orchestra. The Detroit Symphony: needs some new orchestra music that it can claim for its own. More people are going to be embarrassed than excited about the tap dancing thing. Not to put words up in MT’s mouth, but if Michael Torke srsly wanted to do a piece with tap dancer, I’m sure he’d figure it out without a major symphony’s help. (Did that piece ever even end up happening?) This is not to say, however, that we (here, meaning composers in general) don’t love a funny commission; I’ve been the happy recipient of many strange collaborative commissions. I guess my point is that I wouldn’t call those things “adventurous” as much as “random” in the literal sense of the world: a blip, a way to spend (or make) some money and have a nice evening.

The times I have been the most honored by a commission have been when an ensemble ““ established or not ““ asks me to add something to the pile of music written for that collection of forces. When a string quartet says, “we’d like a new string quartet, written by you,” to me, that is itself more adventurous and touching than when people want a string quartet + electronics, or a string quartet + Inuit throat-singing, or a string quartet + samhorse3.pngliturgical acrobatics. If I wanted to do that, I’d do it my own self, in the D.I.Y. fashion to which I am accustomed (as I write this, I am applying Neosporinâ„¢ to a wound I received while lifting a three hundred-pound fiberglass stallion covered in hair, on whose back I stuck a folk singer, all in collaboration with an Icelandic sculptress in West Chelsea last weekend; I have that kind of adventure under control).

Adventurous commissioning is simple, ungimmicky programming of new works: a new violin concerto to join the pantheon, a new symphony, a new clarinet quintet. I feel like people in my generation deserve to be able to have it both ways: we should be able to be composer-performers, scrappily organizing concerts with our friends, and also, larger organizations should be actively involved in commissioning larger ““ and lasting ““ works. The stodginess and/or petulance of the 60’s happily behind us, pursuing alternate means of getting our work heard is just that: an alternate route, a way to drive every other day to avoid the monotony of our daily commute. My concern, though, is that there is a lot of “adventurous” institutional programming that is actually just a mess, in a sort of “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” type way. One night of synthesized bass and a thumping beat do not an adventurous season make. Just as an exciting life is one that happens every day, not just on vacation, an adventurous season is one that contains a commitment to always buying that unknown vegetable, and learning how to cook it as a technique, not just as a way to spice up supper. One-offs are fun, but the adventure soon comes to an end.

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